CHARLES W BOWEN
Bowen’s was founded by Charles W Bowen, January 1933.
He was born in Delmar, Maryland, December 4, 1898, the third of nine children. He grew up in Suffolk, Virginia, and as a teenager became an apprentice watchmaker at Salamonski’s in Norfolk, and also learned diamond setting and hand engraving. He enlisted during World War I in the Norfolk Light artillery Blues and was sent to Richmond Virginia for training, and then to New Mexico to counter the threat posed by Pancho Villa on the Mexican border. When in richmond he met the woman who was to be his future wife Eleanor Hoffman, and when he returned and was released from the Army they were married. He got a job at Bachrach’s in richmond, was sent to their branch in Lynchburg where their first child, Anne Marie, was born. After jobs in Detroit at Square Deal Miller’s, and Washington, D.C., at Kay’s, in 1926 he accepted a job at Schneer’s, a jewelry chain based in Norfolk, to become manager of their Lynchburg branch store at 817 Main Street.
BRANCH STORE CLOSED
Schneer’s in the fall of 1932 announced the closing of the branch. They offered to let Charles buy it, which he agreed to do; however, this was during the great depression. He had more daring than capital, more optimism than the economy indicated, and a strong streak of ambition. Bank loans were out of the question. He raised a small amount of capitol from a loan on his life insurance policy, and $200 from his wife’s dowry. For $400 he bought everything except the inventory and the accounts receivable, and for these he arranged to pay Schneer’s as he sold or collected.
In January, 1933, Bowen’s opened for business at a time that was later identified as the very bottom of the depression.
Under his careful management the business prospered, and Charles was able to pay off the store’s commitments, establish a strong credit base, became …….. A few doors up the street at 813 Main a ladies’ dress shop had just closed, making available a new, larger location, so in 1936, Bowen’s moved.
Although lacking in formal education Charles had a thirst for improving his knowledge. He took correspondence courses, including the early ones on gemstone properties offered by the brand-new American Gem Society(AGS), and enrolled in weekend seminars and classes on self improvement. Being able to find the time was difficult, since retail stores often stayed open from 8am until 9pm. He had to discontinue his correspondence gem courses.
RAILROAD WATCH INSPECTORS
Bowen’s was named “watch inspector” for the three railroads in the Lynchburg area: the Southern, Norfolk and Western, and Chesapeake and Ohio. During this period it was essential that timekeeping throughout the systems would be synchronized.
December 7, 1941, was not only the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; it was also a crisis at Bowen’s. On that Sunday morning the bookkeeper arrived to finish up some reports only to discover that during the night the store had been burglarized, and that all of the watches had been stolen out of the show cases. This was grim, since watches, because of the threat of war, were getting scarce, and the loss of the income from several hundred watches would be substantial. Telephone calls to the vendors got positive responses, and within a few days a large portion of the watches had been replaced.
The theft turned out to be good news. Not only was the loss covered by insurance, but the rationing of watches to jewelry stores was put into effect starting in January with the quota based on the number bought during 1941, so Bowen’s ration quantity was padded for the next four years! This was the only night time break-in that Bowen’s has experienced.
In 1945, while Charles was vacationing in Florida, he suffered a severe heart attack, and after months of rehabilitation, was able to return to work.
In 1946, son, Brian, who had graduated from VMI and had served in Europe as a combat engineer with the Third Infantry Division in combat, returned home, and joined the business’ Bowen’s was ready to expand again.
9TH AND MAIN
The intersection of Main and 9th street was considered the center of downtown Lynchburg, and in 1946 Bowen’s moved, designing a sleek, “modern” store front, with an up-to-the minute interior for this corner location. They continued to expand the inventory and services. When Brian obtained his Registered Jeweler(RJ) the store became a member of the AGS.
HISTORY IS MADE
A historical event occurred in 1958 when Bowen’s became one of the few, if not the only, jewelry store permitted to display the famed Hope Diamond. At the time Bowen’s was buying most of its unmounted diamonds from Henry Winston, who had just purchased the Evelyn Walsh McLean estate which included the blue 44 carat Hope. It was on tour being shown at charitable events in larger cities, and Brian arranged to have it shown at the Virginia- North Carolina Jewelers’ convention in Roanoke. By chance it was not booked for several days after the convention, so by paying the insurance at Lloyd’s of London, hiring armed guards, and taking other security measures Bowen’s was permitted to display the Hope in Lynchburg. Crowds waited in lines that were more than a block long. Shortly afterwards it was donated to the Smithsonian Museum.
The 1960’s gave the Lynchburg its first Shopping Center, Pittman Plaza, and Bowen’s opened a branch store which was quite successful for 20 years.
THE FIRST ESTATE SHOW
In the early 60’s Bowen’s made contact with a young man, Joel Laykin, who offered to provide the jewelry for an estate show. His father operated Laykin et Cie, a custom jeweler in California who had made jewelry for many of the early film stars. His collection included diamond tiaras, massive diamond necklaces, bracelets and rings which had been owned by Norma Shearer, Gloria Swanson, Irene Dunn and other legendary actresses. In addition to the multi-thousand dollar jewels he had a large assortment of smaller, less expensive previously owned pieces.
The sale was such an overwhelming success it became an annual event and has been repeated for the last 50 years. One year the show included a 15 carat pink diamond which had been Jayne Mansfield’s and in 2014, Bowen’s showed 8 pieces from the Elizabeth Taylor estate (selling 4).
In the 70’s the wig shop next-door became available, and Bowen’s remodeled, opening an archway into the additional selling space to increase the bridal and gift department, and converting the upstairs into storage and bookkeeping. ……in the Louis XV style of antique white with gold trim.
In 1980 River Ridge Mall opened. They did well at the mall, however the quality of stores began to decline, and Bowen’s came to the conclusion that a fine jewelry store didn’t really belong in the atmosphere of mass merchandisers and discounters, so they closed the mall store, completely remodeled the downtown location, and operated as a single store again.
In 2013 Mason Bowen, Brian Jr’s son joined the business, and has begun his study of gemology.